From subsidised housing made from bricks that combine plastic water bottles and a layer of cement, to pyrolysis trials that aim to turn plastic refuse into fuel by Mekong Plus’ team in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region, the non-profit organisation began its humble roots in the mid-90s with a clear objective of eliminating poverty in Vietnam and Cambodia.
“Beyond improving education and infrastructure, one key aspect that we pay attention to is how the environment impacts these efforts,” Bernard Kervyn, founding director of Mekong Plus, reminded.
The most significant activity that influences the environment in rural parts of Southeast Asia?—Farming.
Encouraging locals to abandon pesticides
According to data gathered by The World Bank Organisation in 2020, approximately 36% of Vietnam’s population are still engaged in farming activities despite a drop of 12% compared to a decade ago, signalling a trend that a significant portion of the country’s population has moved on to manufacturing in recent years.
With fewer locals willing to stay in the paddy fields, the demand for output per farmer has increased measurably.
“Locals are now relying more and more on pesticides,” Bernard explained, going in-depth on how the practice isn’t just uneconomical for locals but also a vicious cycle—abuse of chemicals destroying soil and lowering the quality of produce.
“Realistically, it is not possible for farmers to be 100% organic,” he added.
With that in mind, Mekong Plus decided to push on with its goal of educating farmers on sustainable agricultural practices which include the use of organic compost.
Smart farming through training and simplified science
Starting from the early 2000s, Mekong Plus has conducted regular workshops for farming communities in the Mekong Delta region.
“We use pictures and avoid technical words,” Bernard said.
Unlike many other NPOs, Mekong Plus refrains from giving monetary incentives to locals that come to its training sessions which often involve field visits to successful projects.
“Only leaflets and iced tea are offered!” Bernard exclaimed seriously with a hint of humour, explaining how it is common practice for farmers to send an elderly member of the family to workshops just to collect a payout.
The Mekong Plus team then identifies ‘pilot farmers’ who are progressive and innovative; new agriculture techniques developed by Mekong Plus often begin as trials, right in the fields of these farmers, who are then nurtured into key speakers. These community leaders often move on to coaching other farmers.
Recent successes include a family building a covered vegetable farm with an affordable budget of VND2,000,000 (US$87) that was partially subsidised by Mekong Plus through a microloan. The benefits were quickly noticeable—off-season vegetables were produced successfully and sold for 2 to 3 times the price of in-season vegetables. At the same time, vegetables shielded from rain and pests were less likely to rot before harvesting, eliminating the need for pesticides.
“Their neighbours noticed the effectiveness and are now talking to them and our volunteers about adopting the same technique,” Bernard mentioned.
Mekong Plus volunteers also identify other efforts suitable for individual households on a case by case basis. For example—households that also raise livestock can use leftover rice straw treated with Trichoderma fungi as anti-microbial dry litter for their pigs. This strategy comes with an additional benefit; regular bathing is now unnecessary.
“The dry litter can then be collected and reused as compost after the pigs are sold!” Bernard elaborated.
All in all, these efforts build toward farming communities with reduced reliance on chemicals that harm both people and the environment.
Regular communication key to success
With Mekong Plus seeing approximately 900 farmers in Vietnam at its agriculture workshops in southern Vietnam, the team has come to realise the importance of remaining in touch with locals.
“Other topics become relevant when our team spends more than 70% of their time talking to locals on the ground and online,” Bernard said, revealing how working closely with Mekong Plus’ beneficiaries often reveal details that may range from simple complaints about mango trees not producing, to major problems such as a trial failing completely—weekly visits and attaching volunteers to each household become vital.
“It can be embarrassing for them to fail and difficult for farmers to talk about it,” Bernard said, adding that village meetings where farmers can talk and share are also important during every harvest.
How you can help Mekong Plus
Ultimately, Mekong Quilts aims to increase the income of rural communities while protecting the environment.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mekong Plus has delved into collaborations with other organisations, such as creating plastic classroom furniture with plastic waste collected by schoolchildren from schools that Mekong Plus works with the help of ReForm Plastic Project helmed by Evergreen Labs in Danang.
Mekong Plus’ sister social enterprise Mekong Quilts has also recently started making designer cushions using leftover fabrics from furniture conglomerate Scancom. The completed cushions are then sold back to Scancom which then markets them to its customers, creating jobs for Mekong Quilts’ craftswomen while benefitting the environment.
Visit Mekong Plus’ website today to learn more about its community projects and how you can help its beneficiaries while protecting the earth at the same time.